Ferrell, Fast and Funny

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It's difficult to guess who Will Ferrell is channeling here. Is he supposed to be a mix between Dale Earnhardt and George Bush? An egomaniacal racing superstar? The boy who never grew up? Just your average Joe?

What's even more difficult is pinning down what kind of a comedy he's starring in. Is this a comedy about racing? About two best friends? A dysfunctional family? About an arrogant celebrity who goes from top dog to loser, and then back again?

And what's with the 30-second Applebee's commercial?

It's this unpredictability, this sense of mayhem and inventiveness, that keeps Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby on track and always gaining momentum. That — and director Adam McKay's skill in mixing up Ferrell's shtick with a strong supporting cast, keeping the vehicle from bogging down amid Ricky Bobby's immature tirades and boyish antics.For those who loved Ferrell's arrogant newsman in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, also directed by McKay, here Ferrell again struts about, proclaiming in a later scene that his nickname "El Diablo" means "fighting chicken," much as he explained in Anchorman that San Diego actually means "a whale's vagina."

For those who don't savor Ferrell's brand of comic bravura, there are exchanges like this, in which Ricky Bobby — who bleeds red, white and blue while not chugging beer — tries to lap Jean Girard (Sacha Cohen), the gay Frenchman who sips espresso while racing his car, sponsored by Perrier:

"Bobby, enchante."
"Hey, it's me—America!"
Ricky Bobby rams into Jean Girard's bumper.
"You have made me spill my Macchiato."

And then later, during a rematch, we have Girard's sublimely ridiculous taunt: "Now the Matador shall dance with the blind shoemaker."

I haven't seen this screenplay, but I'd bet handsomely that, on the whole, it doesn't read as funny as it plays. Talladega Nights is a comedy based more in the nuance of the moment than in the power of the punch line. Like Ferrell's Elf, it's not a movie of sight gags and set-ups, but a measured comedy that keeps a steady simmer while poking fun at the quirks of American characters and culture. It's smarter than your average summer comedy, and also a bit shrewder.

Here, Ferrell is constantly reinventing himself. Early on, he's the innocent pit-crew member who hops into the car and is the most unlikely of racing champions. Later, he grows the ego that America has come to idolize — the guy who's bought 15 cars just because he can and does what he wants because, he says, it's America — and in America, winners can do anything they want.

But a car wreck sends him running around the race track in his underwear, convinced he's on fire, and then sends him back home, as a faded star now living with his mom, learning how to drive again with his alcoholic father, and delivering pizzas by bicycle. Here, Ricky Bobby is resurrected as the more mythic American figure, relearning the values of family and the sincere joy of racing.

This is why Will Ferrell is such a funny guy. He can play funny, stupid, drunk or angry, run around like a maniac and then get a laugh with the slightest flick of an eyebrow. He can be boorish and then deceptively sincere. He can be genuinely sweet and then appallingly offensive. Unlike Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, Ferrell has more than one note to his comic style — and all the notes are genuine.

Yet the key here is that it's not just Ferrell. John C. Reilly, as Ricky Bobby's best friend, is hilarious, serving as his teammate in early scenes (coining their grocery store-inspired slogan: "Shake and Bake") and then as his nemesis later on. Amy Adams, as Ricky Bobby's unexpected romantic interest, wins us over with only a few lines of dialogue. Jane Lynch, as a tough-talking grandma, gets a handful of laughs, all while Ricky Bobby's two young sons all but steal the show with a back-and-forth that takes place during a family dinner at Applebee's.

And then there's the wild cougar that Bobby's dad leaves in his car to help Ricky overcome his fears.

All around them, subtle jokes litter the landscape. The name of a bar; the sponsors of Ferrell's car; the sportscasters at the race; the way Ricky Bobby says grace at the dinner table; the Halliburton executives watching from the V.I.P. box.

It's a comedy that's working on a few different levels, throwing in surprises in the margins. In a theater filled with 100 people, each person could have a different favorite moment.

Amid a humorless summer at the movie theater, here's a comedy with horsepower to spare.